What would it take for the UK to become a global leader in semiconductor technology? - Engineering Discussions - IET EngX - IET EngX

What would it take for the UK to become a global leader in semiconductor technology?

Semiconductors have come up in the news again recently and seem to be a big focus for govt at the moment. It seems like something the IET should have a policy interest in, so we are keen to find out more.

 As a quick summary, the UK government has launched a semiconductor advisory panel and strategy having identified semiconductors as one of the top five technologies of tomorrow, and the strategy has three main strands:

  • Grow the domestic sector
  • Mitigate the risk of supply chain disruptions
  • Protect our national security

 I'm keen to hear your views on the challenges that  need to be solved in order to be world leading in this sector to help inform a policy position and identify areas to explore in more depth.


IET Lead Policy Officer

  • ...so investing in education and collaboration (particularly supporting research) will help the UK stay agile and competitive in this space - working smarter not harder! Thanks everyone for all the useful feedback on this discussion. I am on leave after today but please do continue to discuss further, someone from the policy team will be monitoring the chat so we can gather any feedback. 


  • Sorry, Roger, didn't see your post before I sent my reply to Mike. Thanks for posting - they are all good questions!

  • Agree - there are too many arts graduates and not enough folk who understand when to use complex numbers or a Bessel function in the teams advising government policy. That would be forgivable, if they actually  realised there was something important they did not know, and were prepared to 'phone a friend' instead of just bluster. But no, it all runs on the hoof.

    A classic example of innumeracy must be the Wales 20mph speed limit - apparently the 88million cost will be borne by the Welsh govt. says the news. That is presumably the cost  of roadsigns and enforcement. But overlooks the far bigger cost that some folk on the road, perhaps half, are not just driving for fun, and are being paid wages to get somewhere.
    Even if we assume these folk only earn minimum wage, and that is not true, as some like doctors and engineers and business types will be in the 'pound a minute' category then say 5 million drivers (it is Wales after all) even at a cost of just 10p a minute per driver of potentially productive working time lost,  (yes, that really is £500k per minute lost) now even assuming only 2-3 minutes added to every hour of driving will cost that £88 million to the Welsh economy over and over every few days. (and if you think a life is worth £1 to £2 million or so, then you need to save one life every few minutes to justify that loss. There are not enough people living in Wales to knock over to manage that let alone enough being killed at 30mph now)

    Clearly no mathematicians on that team either.


  • The fact is that Government just wants the Economic Contribution (That's the Economic-Productivity) of this sector to grow. It knows nothing about how big it is at present, or how it works ... and doesn't really want (or need?) to know, to know it wants it to be bigger. Politicians really are of the opinion that all they have to do is 'pronounce something' and they are so important and powerful, that it then comes to pass. You (we) have to remember that Politicians are our chosen representatives, they are typical by definition. The typical person has no understanding of how anything works (financial, biological, engineering, mathematical, scientific) ... but they know that 'things do happen'. New products benefiting society emerge all the time ... as if by magic. So it is quite logical to them that as powerful people, if they express a societal need, then magically, it will come about. The Emperor has no clothes!

  • say 5 million drivers (it is Wales after all)

    Is this a different Wales to the one I grew up in? As I recall the total population is nor much more than half that number - and not everyone will drive (far from it) - I suppose the number might be increased a little by Saesneg drivers coming across the bridge or dyke, but I would have thought  that would have been pretty much balanced by Welsh drivers going the other way. Those actually being paid while driving will be a small proportion of the total as well (knock off the school run and shopping/leisure traffic and how much is left on restricted roads?) There might even be an effect of slower travel times encouraging the use of more local facilities.

    Costs aren't just associated with road deaths either - treating seriously injured costs the NHS (and insurers) no small fortunes - impacts at 20mph contain less than half the energy of 30mph ones (kinetic energy E ∝ mv²) - so likely much less damage all round.

    Crunching numbers is certainly necessary - but choosing the right numbers comes into it as well.

       - Andy.

  • Quite right - Wales is even more empty than I had casually assumed - having now checked, apparently there are  only 3.1 million residents, and ~ 1.6 million registered cars on 21 thousand miles of road.  Cardiff is the largest city, with half a million occupants and is one of the fastest growing settlements in Wales.  So lets assume  each day 200,000 drivers perhaps 13%,.  are on the road while at work earning Welsh minimum wage of 11p per minute, and each lose 2 or 3 minutes per day to the reduced speed.

    I agree it looks less spectacularly uneconomic now, as we are losing perhaps £30,000- 50,000  per day to lost labour.

    But then there are not that many accidents to consider


    In the context of those figures  'seriously injured' equates to needing hospital treatment, as opposed to a minor injury treated at the roadside, and as such has a very wide range from needing a dressing and go home same or next day, to weeks in intensive care and or permanent disability.


  • be world leading in this sector to help inform a policy position and identify areas to explore in more depth

    Holding up 'semiconductors' as an item of interest for Gov't policy/in-depth exploration is a bit like saying sugar production needs increasing because people like sweet food. There are so many assumptions in the statement and the picture is murky because humans are not conforming to one 'normal', nor do groups of humans like threat groups conform to one normal. The policy on the matters raised - growth, mitigation and protect are all better served IMO by policies that encourage and foster diversity of solutions to problems. Creative thinking and adding complexity of the way we do things prevents one strike defeats all type threats. \modular energy solutions do not suit the big energy suppliers, but actually diversifying down to small makes for super reliable sustainable communities. Thinking more about the way we share solutions IPR for the common good and protect/reward the people sharing would speed up UK growth. Challenging the technology sector to actually be energy concious and able to show whole-life neutral or positive impact on our planet would force UK to lead this sector in the long term because businesses do not see it as economical to compete right now. Why are so many people riding electric bikes, scooters, skates and driving when actually walking would have been the best solution had that electric option not been there? Without Govt policy our business fill the need to lazy with these gadgets and make us less fit as a nation.

    So semiconductors are just one tiny part of the technology equation that research seeks to replace with more advanced solutions. If we used policy then I suspect we would find ourselves always one step behind and unable to compete. Policy needs to grow the way we research and develop and open doors to experimentation. Trial and error has revealed most technological leaps and now we need that to be the best informed trial and result analysis the UK can afford. Just don't focus too early on any one aspect.

  • Semiconductors are a key link in the chain for Smart Electronic Systems that pervade our lives today. And it is true that without them the systems on which we depend do not work. But there are many vulnerable links in these chains, not just silicon. Economically the biggest £ numbers are associated with the systems they are part of, not the chips themselves. Chip factories (FABs) are huge mony pits running on tight margins ... a show of National chutzpah. If the UK made lots of systems then we would be vulnerable to the supply of chips ... but we don't realy make enough systems for them to be a National security issue or major economic contributor. Our national vulnerability associated with silicon is that we depend on everybody else to provide the multitudinous systems businesses and individuals want. However this approachis short sighted because it means we have no native capability snd skills to enable us to guide and advise the procurement of these systems, or to fill supply gaps when they or parts of them become scarce. Years of out-source policy from all colours of government have lead to Hollowing-Out all of (most of) our technology capabilities ... in favour of trusting them to the continued beneficence of others. And it was done in the name of financial prudence, despite the many warnings from those people who do understand how things work.

    There is no quick fix for this. Its 25-50yrs of neglecting the role of technologists in technology that has got us here, and a cure even with a fair wind, will take a generation.

    What fair wind? It will mean finding the *real* sparks and glimmers that exist in the hollow, and nurturing them! With real Love and Money! With a belief that this policy will pay-out in ~20yrs. 

    Don't tell me that Gov. doesn't work with those timescales ... that's just a description about the consequence of short-termism. The USA has Darpa, France has CEA. We used to have similar ... our forefathers (and mothers) saw the need for investing in the future. Accountants never innovate, they only ballance the books.

  • I have heard the arguments for decades. Twenty years ago I was fortunate to be a member of a committee reporting to government which unanimously concluded that the UK needed a central semiconductor research facility. The government did not like the message, disbanded the committee and set another to examine how to maximise the UK potential in electronics.

    At the time, it seemed to me that I was a lone voice in saying that silicon would be the dominant technology for the foreseeable future, at least for twenty or thirty years. Those of similar vintage may recall that the government were listening to university researchers, particularly in the U.S., who were saying that "silicon would reach the end of the road by 2015".  Silicon is still the dominant technology and looks set to remain so for the next two decades. That is not to say it has had the field to itself. Developments have been significant in other areas, which have in the main increased the demand for silicon. GaN, for example, has excelled at making low energy light bulbs which silicon could never do, but each lamp needs a silicon power device or two or an I.C., or a combination, in a switching regulator. Other technologies have made high frequency design for mobile phones possible, but silicon computing power is still used in the cameras and phone systems.

    The arguments expressed by university researchers were aimed, understandably, at protecting their facilities, but did not really help with maintaining silicon production. Even leaders in the UK industries at the time proffered a view that went along the lines that "the UK does not need to make DRAMs because [though making a penny a chip can make you a fortune] you only have to lose a penny a chip to lose a fortune". That seemed to be accompanied by an arrogance that "we can produce designers capable of developing ideas but can leave the manufacturing part to others" - meaning, we don't need to invest in large fabrication plants. Those sentiments have echos in the comments here. Today, larger populations in the U.S. and China, for example, would suggest that to be competitive is harder simply in terms of numbers of engineers available, though certainly a few decades ago, the UK was well able to hold its own.

    If the UK is to become a serious player on the world stage it will need investment, and lots of it. Countries which have done well (China, Taiwan and Korea, to name a few) have had investements by their respective governments which put UK efforts into the shade. On the countrary, the UK has been happy to see what we had sold to foreign owners. 

    Silicon could still be a technology to invest in. But it really is less important than answering the fundamental questions of "what is the overall aim?" and "will the investment be adequate?". In silicon, to compete in the chip area would now mean a catch-up as we are several generations behind. State of the art IC fabrication is almost ten times smaller than UK last had. Even in the discrete business, where there was even more disdain for the technology, power devices are needed at the end of the system design for controlling motors in EV's for instance.

    It is well beyond time that the government paid serious attention to the needs of technologies in future. If we are to continue to hold a place in the world of manufacturing, or leadership even, the new technologies of renewable energy and energy efficiency are likely to become critical. It will need more than a promise to invest, but a proper road map and funding to achieve.